In and maintaining British rule in Ireland, the

In this lesson, we explore the centuries-old rivalry between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland, and the political and military struggle for the six northernmost counties in Ireland during the thirty-year period known as ‘The Troubles.’

The Troubles and Bloody Sunday

Rivalries often have long histories.

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In sports, rivalries bloom from something as small as geographical proximity or a slight between players or fans in the distant past. For example, the University of Michigan and the University of Minnesota football teams play each other each year for a brown jug, which Minnesota reportedly refused to give back to Michigan after a game 100 years ago!The rivalry between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland is far less flippant and goes back several centuries. Indeed, instead of something as frivolous as a football game, conflict between Protestants and Catholics in Ireland often decided whether each group would be allowed to practice their own religion or the role of British government in Ireland.


The story of Northern Ireland goes back several centuries. Indeed, England had controlled Ireland in varying degrees since the Norman conquest of Ireland in the late 12th century. For centuries afterward, English control was nominal, and England only had effective control of Dublin and its environs.

However, in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, various Tudor and Stuart monarchs began taking a greater interest in Irish affairs, largely because although England had become a Protestant country during the reign of Henry VIII, Ireland had remained a staunchly Catholic island. Many Protestants feared that attempts to impose Catholicism upon England would likely come from Ireland.In addition to military campaigns, England also began taking land from rebellious Catholic Irish nobles and importing English or Scottish Protestant settlers into the seized territory. An opportunity for an enormous settlement opened up in 1607, when several Catholic earls fled from Ireland to Europe.

These earls owned huge tracts of land in the North of Ireland in Ulster. With English settlements in Ulster, these Northern Counties evolved into a bastion of Protestantism in largely Catholic Ireland.This became incredibly important when Irish independence from England finally became attainable in the years after WWI.

In January 1919, Ireland declared independence from England, and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) began fighting a guerrilla war against the occupying British troops. Despite attempts at declaring martial law and maintaining British rule in Ireland, the British agreed to a truce in 1921 and recognized Irish independence in 1922. However, before doing so, the British Parliament partitioned Ireland, creating Northern Ireland out of the six largely Protestant Northern Counties. According to the law, Northern Ireland remained part of the United Kingdom.

Parliamentary Intervention

This did not sit well with the new state of Ireland who wanted the entire island unified under the Irish flag. Additionally, the minority Catholic population in Northern Ireland wanted to be part of the Irish state. The majority Protestant population, however, was relieved to remain part of the U.K., and the ensuing Northern Irish government became dominated by these Protestant unionists.Catholics were openly discriminated against in Northern Ireland, and the Protestant government refused to address these issues. Violence often broke out between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland.

The unrest became so prevalent that in 1968, the British Parliament suspended Northern Ireland’s ability to legislate for itself and began directly controlling the country.Violence continued, however, as the Provisional IRA, a Northern Irish nationalist paramilitary organization, refused to accept any solution to the crisis other than complete British withdrawal and reunification of the six Northern Counties with the rest of Ireland. Until its demands were met, the IRA was determined to conduct a guerrilla war against British troops in Northern Ireland. In response, Protestants formed their own paramilitary organizations to oppose the IRA. The increased violence and intermittent warfare between Catholic and Protestant paramilitary groups, and at times British troops, continued for nearly three decades, a period of time that came to be called ‘The Troubles.

‘ British troops were unwelcome by either side; Catholics viewed the British presence as yet another impediment to Irish unification, and many Protestants feared the British might intentionally weaken the Protestant position in Northern Ireland, hoping to placate the IRA and end the violence.

Bloody Sunday and Guerrilla Warfare

British troops did themselves little favors in their actions on Bloody Sunday, arguably the most iconic event of the period. On January 30, 1972, approximately 10,000 Irish Catholics and nationalists conducted a civil rights rally in the Northern Irish town of Derry, protesting against the treatment of Catholics in Northern Ireland and also implicitly supporting the movement to reunite all of Ireland.

When British troops cut off the rally’s original route in the hope of containing the demonstration, small skirmishes broke out between groups of disaffected youths and the British troops. When violence escalated, British troops began attempting to arrest members of the crowd, and in the process, they opened fire, killing 13 men and wounding 13 others. The Catholic community in Northern Ireland was outraged and viewed the incident as a massacre, and tensions were only worsened when a British government inquest into the incident largely blamed the victims for their own death.After Bloody Sunday, secret disarmament talks the British government had been having with the IRA broke down. In 1973, the Sunningdale Agreement attempted to return some power of governance back to the Northern Irish government, while also providing a role for the Irish government in Northern Irish affairs. The agreement appeased neither side, and the institutions it set up dissolved the following year.

Meanwhile, violence continued unabated. Terrorist attacks and car bombs became routine, including a particularly bloody incident in May 1974 when four car bombs in Dublin and Monaghan killed 33 people and wounded hundreds. In an attempt to control the violence, British troops began arresting and imprisoning any person suspected of being part of either a nationalist or unionist paramilitary group.

Peace Talks

The impetus for peace in the conflict grew only through a weariness of bloodshed. Indeed, by the late 1980s, both the British government and the Irish nationalists realized that military victory was virtually impossible. The growth of the Irish nationalist political party, Sinn Féin, gave the British government an engaged political group with which to negotiate, as the British government refused to negotiate with either paramilitary group. While this certainly goaded the process along, it was the IRA’s agreement to lay down its arms and announce a ceasefire in 1994, which opened the door for lasting peace.Despite initial unionist refusals to negotiate with members of Sinn F;in, peace talks ramped up in 1996, aided in part by the United States. The resulting Good Friday Agreement of 1998 returned total control over Northern Ireland’s governance to Northern Ireland.

The key part to the agreement stated that any changes to the Northern Irish constitution – namely, unification or separation with the Irish state – would have to be agreed to by a majority in both Ireland and Northern Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement marks the effective end of The Troubles in Ireland, though continued unrest over the same issues do still occur today, often surrounding religious and cultural holidays.

Lesson Summary

The Troubles in Ireland emerged out of a centuries-old religious rivalry that turned into a political conflict when Great Britain separated Northern Ireland from the rest of Ireland after WWI. Protestant discrimination against Catholics in the new country fostered ill will between the two sides that became increasingly violent in the 1960s, forcing the British government to step in to restore order.

Unfortunately, British incursions into Northern Ireland angered both sides, and a guerrilla war broke out between Catholic and Protestant paramilitary organizations. British legitimacy was further eroded when troops opened fire on nationalist demonstrators on Bloody Sunday. The violence continued until the IRA laid down its weapons in 1994 and the peace process began in earnest. The Good Friday Agreement laid down the political ground rules for any future attempts at unification, and increasingly stable peace with only occasional unrest exists in Northern Ireland today.

Learning Outcomes

When this lesson is over, you should be able to:

  • Recall when Ireland declared independence from England
  • Tell how long ‘The Troubles’ lasted for and describe Bloody Sunday
  • Discuss the Sunningdale Agreement and the Good Friday Agreement

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